Must Modern Society Rein In Technological Progress?

from the technological-skepticism dept

Our recent stance in the debate about extensive safety testing was predicated on the fact that by and large technology improves our lives, and thus innovation shouldn’t be held back out of concern that we might make a mistake. Of course, this reasoning fails against anyone who doesn’t accept that technology does in fact lead to lifestyle improvements. The Guardian has an interesting interview with one such individual, William Davies of London’s Institute For Public Policy Research. Davies’ concerns over new technological trends stem from the fact that unlike past periods of innovation, which helped the supply side deliver goods more efficiently, the rise of mobile phones and computing affect the end user, threatening to dangerously reshape society. One of his central points is something of an old one, that individuals equipped with technology will miss out on important face-to-face experiences. As he puts his conclusion, “…what I do believe to be necessary is that we recognise that part and parcel of modernisation is to put checks on that modernisation. And that we should give weight to the forms of conservatism that say: This is all the technology we want.”

His stance can obviously be tackled from many angles, including the fact that technology allows us to make important human connections that had been heretofore impossible. More important, however, is countering the idea that it’s society’s job to make choices as to what technologies we will accept and which ones we won’t. What Davies (and many others) fail to acknowledge is that broad technological changes are the result of millions of individuals making choices. Everyone who owns a cell phone had to weigh the pros and cons of buying one, and each person decided that they would be better off with one. The idea that an enlightened board can decide what is best for everyone ignores the fact that we’re all individuals. Davies’ technological skepticism echoes the thinking behind Barry Schwartz’ popular book The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less. In it he argues that our abundance, at places like the supermarket, often leaves people confused and frustrated, as opposed to happier and better off. What makes both of their arguments so seductive is the fact that everyone can relate to the problems they identify; sometimes it is overwhelming when we’re faced with too many choices. It can be lonely to look around and see everyone silently listening to their iPods. But their arguments fail because it is not enough to just identify flaws to say that a system is broken. The fact that there are problems means we need to innovate some more in order to solve them, not put the brakes on technology out of fear that we’ll create new ones. A society in which people aren’t allowed to work on new solutions to problems and apply their talents would have many more problems than a lack of communication between passengers on their subway ride.

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Comments on “Must Modern Society Rein In Technological Progress?”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Semantic Nitpicking

I think it IS society’s job to make choices about which technologies we will accept. I think it’s perfectly legitimate for social groups to call for widespread change and argue for or against new technologies. Many people aren’t so rational about their decisions in the “pro/con” way you describe, and a group providing some rational insight could be very valuable. However, I suspect you are suggesting that it is not government’s job to limit innovation for us legislatively, with which I completely agree.

The Meat says:

Re: Re: Semantic Nitpicking

A legislative action does not represent society making a choice. A legislative action represents people society elected making a choice for society. Society can directly make the choice by choosing to support, or not support, technologies as a collective. As in, voting with ones wallet.

Bogamol says:

Re: Re: Semantic Nitpicking

I agree that society needs to use legislation to determine what technology to embrace or to reject. I think the bigger issue is the size of the society that makes the legislation.

What is wrong with the idea that I could live in a region that embraces cloning or cellphones if I so choose rather than having (majority) dissenters of these technologies unilaterally forcing everybody on the planet to obey their sensitivities?

That said, another method that society uses when picking technology is by using the power of the ‘almighty dollar.’ If I don’t like a tech, I am not going to buy it.

We need to be able to use both in order to enforce changes. At the local level, we need legislation, at the international level we should use production as influence and for all levels of govt between, we should use a sort of gradient system between the two.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: cloneing

And this would be bad how? Having a genetic duplicate harms society in what way? It’s not like we can force grow the clone for organ harvesting. I’m fairly confident that an infants kidneys aren’t going to do someone much good while they wait for those kidneys, or other organs, or mature to a harvestable point. also, that new infant, with an exact copy of your genes, has a good 20 to 40 year head start on envirnmental genetic damage, so their life expectancy probaly isn’t too stellar to begin with. If a narcisist really wants a baby, who are you to say no?

Louis says:

Re: cloneing

Yes. Your antiquated notion of “morals” is impeding your technological progress. While the rest of the world moves forward you will be left behind, with just your morals to keep you company.

Which, on the other hand, might be something you would be comfortable with, and that`s fine. As long as you don`t impose them on the rest of us.

Right Said... says:


It’s quite the leap you’ve made there but I agree we SHOULD allow human -cloning- (no e) and go from there, as long as we recognise that clones are as much individual people as the originals and have the very same rights.

I have a problem seeing the part of cloning that the government should have any say in.

If one were to violate that person’s rights, Then goverment has a say, till then, Nope.

Jean (user link) says:

rational choice?

This, of course, assumes much – that we all make choices as free, rational agents unfettered by illusions in a marketplace where the best innovations always prevail. If our ‘free choices’ weren’t monitored and managed so meticulously, then possibly that assumption could fly.

Innovations often work to the advantage of the companies who champion and market them, at the expense of consumer benefit. An example of this can be seen in the history of the recording industry, with its coordinated efforts over the last century to champion new formats to prop up campaigns of remastered nostalgia, and to seduce consumers into buying things they already own.

Maxillarypun says:

Technological Advances, Morals, etc... My Two Cent

There has been a lot of ideas thrown around on this issue.

I noticed that we seem to be reacting to emotionally and politically charged statements. I’m talking about the cloning and morals issue, really.

Putting that aside for a minute, technology advances regardless of whether we like it or not, because there will always be someone pushing the edges of technology to see where we will go. Society simply tries to rein in the advances to try and maintain a technological level (is “technological” really a word? ) that is “safe” for its people. In other words, does a particular piece of technology bring more good to the table than bad?

Some groups of people (I think you might know who I’m referring to) opt to not use technology because it has complicated their lives and they want to live simple, uncomplicated lives. That is their choice.

Mr. Davies seems to be saying that if we don’t make good choices now, we will be “dangerously reshaping society.” He is, as all people do, making a “moral” judgement on the outcome of technology.

The people on all sides of the cloning issue are making “moral” decisions. Morals are never antiquated, seeing as how we, as humans, have morals integrated into our very being. Think about the fact that everyone tries to make decisions that are good for themselves AND for the people around them. That, my friends, are “morals”.

Society (the collection of people in which we are some of those people) will tend to select which technologies we want to use. And, hopefully, we will make good choices. Of course, we, the people, have made good and bad choices before, haven’t we?

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